Relationality, Reflexivity and Power

I read a really engaging chapter earlier by  called Authority’s Hidden Network: Obligations, Roles and the Morphogenesis of Authority. I’d encountered some of his earlier work (particularly his attempt, which I’m extremely sympathetic to, at a critical realist reading of Foucault) but I hadn’t realised he was now doing such fascinating work on social morphogenesis and normativity.

Obligations, like every feature of the personal, social and cultural realms are both structured and potentially subject to change at any moment. Because of this, obligations have a past and a future. They stretch through a certain period of time, variable in length, but only relatively enduring. Thus, if I promised to meet a friend in the pub every Wednesday evening, then I should still be bound by the obligation I had contracted in a week’s time. Yet, obligations are seldom eternal and their continuity is relative: some day, I may have good reasons to stop feeling obliged to attend that weekly pub meeting. Exploring these reasons gives us some insight into the articulation of obligations between the personal, social and cultural realms (see Archer 1995 for the distinction between personal, social and cultural properties). For instance, I may decide to quit drinking or to take my own promises more lightly (personal realm); my relation with that friend may get colder over time (social realm); or the practice of meeting in pubs can become unfashionable and other places might become more attractive as meeting places (cultural realm). This short illustration indicates that the relative continuity of obligations over time presupposes relative continuities in the personal, cultural and social realms. In the personal realm, a continuity of concern (for this friendship), and the values it entails, is presupposed. Indeed, if my (positive) valuation of the pub as a meeting place is transformed, then I may feel inclined to suggest a different meeting place; if my valuation of punctuality is transformed then I would feel inclined to show up late; if my concern for my friend’s well-being withers, then I may simply not show up without further warning! In the cultural realm, a continuity of meaning relatively to the content of our promise is also presupposed. If, say in 20 years’ time, virtual meetings become the convention, then I may feel inclined to suggest an internet meeting while expecting a positive response from my friend.

Similarly, if the word ‘pub’ comes to refer to what we currently call cafés, then the obligation might also be correspondingly affected. In short, my obligation is internally related to cultural emergent properties. In the social realm, obligations presuppose—and in turn constitute—relatively enduring continuities that can be located at the level of social roles and of the relations between them. Back to the example of meeting a friend in the pub; the social roles I personify bear on my being subject to the obligation of attending the meeting. For instance, if it is accepted that friends ought to keep their promises and care for one another, then I would have some obligation to attend and further obligation to let my friend know promptly in case of my not going. [..] Understanding how obligations and social roles are mutually constitutive is of import for the present study.First, because if roles are excluded from the picture, there is a risk of interpreting the normative commitments of people merely in terms of their personal attributes or in terms of the position they occupy within a network of relations. What would be missing in such a picture is an appreciation of the import of people’s efforts at playing their various social roles competently. These acts of personification are irreducible to the patterns of exchange in which people engage and cannot be subsumed under any personal data the inquirer may gather about participants. In other words, if I take my role as an employee seriously and if I am running late on a piece of work, then I may feel obliged to postpone that pub meeting. This obligation, stemming from my social role as an employee, depends on but cannot be explained away reductively by reference to my personal integrity or the fact that I have been meeting that friend every week over the last 2 years.

In essence he seems to be recasting authority in relational realist terms, with the aim of understanding observable relations of authority in terms of a “wider – and typically neglected – network of (significant) others whose expected attitudes are commonly used as a compass for agents engaging in relations of authority”. I’d strongly recommend this chapter to anyone interested in realist social theory (more so than anything I’ve encountered for a while) – it’s not perfect by any means but it’s hard not to get the impression he was compressing a developing long-term research agenda into a book chapter here. Underlying it is the recognition that a “conception of power that is relational and circular draws attention to agents’ attitudes and reflexive abilities” – so power is seen to be a relation in Foucault’s sense but with the caveat that the persons so related are understood as reflexive strong evaluators. Along with Archer’s recasting of the genesis of reflexivity in relational terms, his work here is important for ensuring that the claims made by realist social theory at the theoretical level do not lead to voluntarism at the explanatory level. It also contains what seems to be an ingenious critique of Weber but my grasp of Weber’s work is insufficient to judge if this is as accurate as it seems:

The rest of this chapter is dedicated to fleshing out a conception of authority that seeks to avoid the pitfalls identified above in the works of Weber: (i) ontological oscillations concerning the nature of authority; (ii) questionable conceptual links between legitimacy, obligation and right; (iii) insufficient attention to the processes through which people personify social roles that structure those relations of authority in which they are involved; and (iv) an excessive focus on the dyad ruler/ruler that obscures the network of (real or imagined) others whose beliefs and attitudes inform participants’ claims to authority and legitimacy.

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